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Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

PARADISE LOST?
connexion, Cantor's theory of the infinite was eagerly pounced
on by the Jesuits, whose keen logical minds detected in the
mathematical imagery beyond their theological comprehension
indubitable proofs of the existence of God and the self-consis-
tency of the Holy Trinity with its three-in-one, one-in-three,
co-equal and co-eternal. Mathematics has strutted to some
pretty queer tunes in the past 2,500 years, but this takes the
cake. It is only fair to say that Cantor, who had a sharp wit and
a sharper tongue when he was angered, ridiculed the pretentious
absurdity of such 'proofs', devout Christian and expert
theologian though he himself was.
Cantor's school career was like that of most highly gifted
mathematicians - an early recognition (before the age of fifteen)
of his greatest talent and an absorbing interest in mathematical
studies. His first instruction was under a private tutor, followed
by a course in an elementary school in St Petersburg. When the
family moved to Germany, Cantor first attended private schools
at Frankfurt and the Darmstadt non-classical school, entering
the Wiesbaden Gymnasium in 1860 at the age of fifteen.
Georg was determined to become a mathematician, but his
practical father, recognising the boy's mathematical ability,
obstinately tried to force him into engineering as a more pro-
mising bread-and-butter profession. On the occasion of Cantor's
confirmation in 1860 his father wrote to hfrn expressing the high
hopes he and all Georg's numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins in
Germany, Denmark, and Russia had placed on the gifted boy:
'They expect from you nothing less than that you become a
Theodor Schaeffer and later, perhaps, if God so wills, a shining
star in the engineering firmament.' When will parents recognize
the presumptuous stupidity of trying to make a cart horse out
of a born racer?
The pious appeal to God which was intended to blackjack the
sensitive, religious boy of fifteen into submission in 1860 would
to-day (thank God!) rebound like a tennis ball from the harder
heads of our own younger generation. But it hit Cantor pretty
hard. In feet it knocked him out cold* living his father
devotedly and being of a deeply religious nature, young Cantor
could not see that the old man was merely rationalizing his own
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